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Establishing pathways: NWACC offers trail management, technician courses this fall


Megan Bolinder: At that time, people were in the pandemic, lots and lots of bicycle riding was happening. And there was a huge need for quick professionalization of the industry for all of the technicians that were becoming needed. So the chair of BIA at that time called and said, 'We'd like you to stand up this program.' It'll be the second in the country with this curriculum that's already been developed from Barnett's Bicycle Institute, which was, at the time, the bicycle institute in Colorado. And we said, 'Okay.' We started it with seed grant money from the Walton Family Foundation and are now in our third year with our third cohort- it's been wildly successful. And as we have gone on that journey, we have realized to be the mountain bike capital of the world, we also need a similarly well-trained trail-building and maintenance workforce. And so we are intending to teach people how to effectively plan design, build and maintain trails in this region and in the state. Absolutely.

Jack Travis: Do either of y'all bike, personally?

MB: I'm a street biker, a little bit.

Wendy Taylor: So I do mountain bike. I'm a green trail girl. I'm not exactly an expert in mountain biking, but I do mountain bike. And I also am kind of the resident e-bike person here on staff. I ride an e-bike. And I commute when the weather's a lot better than it is today. I commute every Wednesday from Bella Vista here to NWACC.

JT: Oh, wow. How long is that trip?

WT: It's about nine miles. It's not too bad. We have a group from Bella Vista that rides. We have a "Ride to Work Wednesday" group through Walmart. And so we bike in every Wednesday morning.

JT: So why are you personally excited to see this kind of specialized workforce development introduced to the college?

WT: So I have been here in Northwest Arkansas for 20 years. I've really seen this area grow tremendously, and I've been a part of the trails coming in. When they started to come in, I was just a pure advocate for the trails, whether they're single track or the Greenway, and what it brings to the community. So I'm super excited to see that we're bringing this program to the college and are starting to train that workforce for both the bicycle technician program and the trail technician program. But to bring that to the community and bring that to people to come into the workforce, I think it's important to start to standardize that workforce and offer opportunities for students to be able to learn those skills.

MB: If I may jump in, an important component of workforce development is our developers in the region and our community partners being able to trust the work done. And so what we hope is that this will provide much more confidence in designers and employers in the region as they begin projects that they know the quality of the workforce and the standards that were used to train them so that there are not as many mistakes made and conflicts that arise because the standard of training is now understood. And the level of competence of the workforce is that much higher.

JT: So, how are you marketing the school? And who are you attempting to attract?

MB: That's a great question. Our stakeholder groups are really diverse. And so we have different marketing strategies depending on which audiences we're trying to message to. We want to do everything from raising consciousness about the program and our commitment to good stewardship of our outdoor spaces in Arkansas. But of course, we also want to message people who would like training, so we will have college credit-bearing financial aid-eligible programs. And we will also have short-term training in the future for people who want to come and do professional development, continuing education and certifications like the trail building assessment, as well as Sawyer certification and wilderness first aid.

JT: With those certifications, where can students go post their completion?

MB: So, as of right now, there are 1523 positions in Arkansas State Parks- 594 of them are currently vacant. So that's definitely an avenue, but it's also for students; for instance, if they enroll in our certificate of proficiency in trail technician, they will have what they need immediately to begin as a trail crew member. Likewise, if they get our certificate of proficiency in trail management, they will have what they need to become a trail crew leader or manager. We also are training people to be State Park trail managers and trail company managers. And we will even have courses that will lead to design planning and master planning of trails and community development. So, students will have an opportunity to take classes each semester and, at each juncture, get a credential.

JT: You mentioned how Bentonville is, of course, becoming the mountain biking capital of the world. Do you expect people to be able to take their skills elsewhere to the other hubs of outdoor recreation across the country or maybe even the globe?

MB: We do. And it's both. So we've been very diligent in our partnerships and not doing this alone as an island. And so, for instance, we're working very closely with the PTBA. That is the Professional Trail Builders Association- that is the national trade association for trail building. And we've been working with them and also American Trails to flesh out what they have created; it's called the trail skills competency. And if you go to trailskills.org, you will see what all of us are hoping will become trail standard for the profession, and the competencies and multiple areas that someone would need to know to be a proficient member, as well as trail manager. Likewise, we are also developing our curriculum in concert with a group in the EU. It's called the DYRTT Project. And there are multiple countries that are participating in this project with us to create an international standard. That's very similar to what we're doing with PTBA and American Trails. And so for instance, our first three courses in our sequence are the same as their first three courses and their sequence. So, if there were ever the desire or interest to do a cross-cultural, cross-knowledge exchange and get certifications, students will be able to do that.

JT: It sounds like they'll need to gain more skills than just, you know, working with your hands and welding and stuff like that. What kind of soft skills can people hope to gain through working through these programs?

MB: Well, our first class, the introduction to sustainable trails course, will be a broad overview of the cultural, social and economic impact of trails from, you know, Silk Road to today, and not just nationally, but internationally. And so I think that's always a really important concept and conversation to begin about what it means to be a citizen and interact with others on land. What does responsible land ownership and management mean? So, we will begin with the big picture like that to situate the importance of contextualizing the skills that we'll be teaching. But also in the trail maintenance and management course, as well as the trail operations and regulations course, we will go in-depth into how to do community, community advocacy, kind of work with permitting, how to work with various stakeholder groups that may or may not agree on how a trail should look, or what it should do, or who it should work for, or whether there should be a trail at all. So we'll get into those issues that can be dicey but can also be really important in helping communities progress and move forward.

JT: Something that really struck me from what I saw on your website was this new facility. It looks pretty impressive. Could you just tell me about that facility and what students can expect to encounter in that new building?

MB: So it's going to be phenomenal. There's nothing like it anywhere, and so on the east side will be what already exists. And that's our bicycle technician lab that has 12 workstations with more bikes than you can count that students work on. And it's just state-of-the-art. It's beautiful. It has been in existence for three years. Directly next to that will now be a weekend and evening workshop space so that people who want to come in to learn how to maintain their bikes but don't necessarily want to commit to the year-long nine-class program will be able to use that space in the evenings and on the weekends. Then, from there to the rest of the building, going east, will be a welding lab for trails. There will be a room where we do woodworking and small engine repair and experience with the different hand tools. And that's a huge open lab space. There will also be simulators in that space where we will get hands-on machines, but we will also give them hours in simulation chairs, where they will go through what it's like to drive a skid steer and a mini excavator and a bulldozer and a mini dump truck. And that will help with muscle memory. So training doesn't have to happen on the job in the field for the very first time and then have a really beautiful classroom, of course, where they can make lecture note-taking discussion; it's really exciting. It's going to be an incredible space.

WT: The only thing I was going to mention when he's you're talking about those weekend and evening classes that we do currently have an evening class more of, as she said, a community class where people can come in and learn to work on their bikes, it's not necessarily a year-long program, it is a four-week class that we have. We will have one starting in February and also one starting in April for the bike technician program.

More information on Northwest Arkansas Community College and the new Trail Technician Program.

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Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
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